"He says he's for the County. Here's the County where is he?" — retired Mercer County sheriff's officer Gloria Anderson addressing the Board of Freeholders at last night's meeting.
FEBRUARY 12, 2016: PRESS RELEASE FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes announced a plan that would cost as many as 140 corrections officers their jobs as part of his 2016 Budget Message. The budget unveiled at tonight's Mercer County Board of Chosen Freeholders meeting — described by Hughes as "austere and balanced" includes a two percent tax increase despite drawing on $9.9 million of the counties' estimated $20 million surplus.
In a second blow to taxpayers, the freeholders voted by a unanimous 6-0 majority (Freeholder Samuel Frisby was absent) to approve 4%raises for themselves, Hughes, County Administrator Andrew Mair, Human Services Director Marygrace Billek, Transformation and Infrastructure Director Aaron T. Watson, County Clerk Paula Sollami-Covello, Sheriff John A. Kemler, and Surrogate Diane Gerofsky.
During his presentation Hughes cited the inadequate state of the current facility in Hopewell, which was originally build in 1892, limited access to sewer lines, and the prohibitive cost of building a new facility as factors in the decision to greatly reduce the number of inmates at the facility.
Instead the county, through an agreement with Hudson County, would send as many as 600 inmates to that county's facility.
Attorney David Beckett, representing the Superior Officers, felt the county executive overstated the concerns with the condition of the Mercer facility.
"You have put money into the prison every year," said Beckett, addressing the freeholders during the public comment portion of the meeting, "It's in much better shape now."
Brian Mitchell, the Superior Officers union president, refuted Hughes' claim that the current conditions of the Hopewell facility made for dangerous conditions.
"The warden there has done a tremendous job. There are cameras everywhere," said Mitchell, pointing out that the transportation to the new facility would be far more of a concern. "Hudson County in nearly 90 miles away. Nearly 200 miles back and forth is a security risk."
Hughes, who left the meeting immediately after his presentation — skipping the public comment portion of the meeting — also stated that the Hudson County facility is much better equipped to serve the needs of the inmate population.
"According to the Department of Justice, of the 10,000 offenders 2 of 3 return to prison. Of the 1800 addicts in our system 30 percent end up back in legal system. Other inmates have severe mental illness, and (there are) not enough cells (at the Mercer facility). Hudson County has an entire unit to serve inmates with mental illness. There are also substance abuse programs increasing the chance of rehabilitation."
Hughes also claimed that the county incurs transportation costs for inmates who require renal treatments, a procedure for which the Hudson County facility has resources.
Beckett and Mitchell refuted those claims.
"The treatment program in Hudson County, many of our inmates are not convicted and are in the facility for six months or less," Beckett said, before stating that the renal treatments affected one or two inmates and was not a huge expense.
"Mental health inmates are dealt with effectively (at Mercer)," Mitchell said. "As for substance abuse programs most of them are not in long enough for those programs to be effective. Many of our inmates are waiting to be charged. Most are there less than 2-3 days and at the most two or three months."
Ray Peterson of PBA 157, which represents the corrections officers, felt the move was a slap in the face of his union members, many of whom supported the council and county executive, all Democrats, in the past.
"Every last one of them is a taxpayer," Peterson said. "It's a slap in everyone of our faces to put that bogus report out there and then walk out the door."
Ewing resident Kelly Ottobre also wondered how Hughes could so callously be willing to cut so many jobs and not even stay for the public comment section.
"What's more important in your eyes than the lives of the people in this room," she said, addressing the freeholders. "Why do you do more for the inmates than you do these officers?"